Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan were blunt about the failure of American education to prepare children for the brave new world when they addressed the National Charters School Conference Wednesday in Atlanta.
“The United States is going to miss the boat to lead and compete in our globalizing world because we are not preparing a majority of our children for the future,” said Edelman. “This is a disaster. If children cannot read in this globalizing world they are being sentenced to social and economic death. They are being sentenced to the prison pipeline.”
“One of the most insidious things that happened in the country over the past couple decades is the dumbing down of standards for children,” said Duncan who appeared by satellite from his office in Washington, D.C. “In far too many states, including the state that I come from, Illinois, we’ve been lying to children and lying to families, telling them they are prepared for college and careers when in fact they are nowhere near ready.”
About 2 million students attend more than 5,200 charter schools nationally. Here in Georgia, more than 72,000 students attend 177 schools. That is a tiny fraction of the state’s 1.65 million public school students. By comparison, Gwinnett County public schools have about 160,000 students.
The celebration tone that existed at Tuesday morning’s opening general session was replaced by Wednesday’s reality check that whatever charter schools have accomplished, there is a long and difficult road ahead for students in all schools, charters, traditional or any other kind. Edelman told charter educators they should take risks, plan ahead and not be deterred, adding, "The Ark was built by amateurs. The Titanic was built by professionals."
Duncan’s presentation included one Georgia specific headline. Responding to an audience question, he said the state cannot use Race to the Top Dollars to assist any of 16 former state commission charter schools. “We are holding the states accountable to the plan they put in place and this was not in there,” Duncan said.
Georgia will receive $100 million annually for the next four years from the Race to the Top federal grant program. Duncan said he has spoken with Governor Nathan Deal about the impact from last month’s Georgia Supreme Court charter schools decision. “We’re talking through a range of different issues. Whatever we can do to help, we’re prepared to do that.”
Wednesday morning general session attendance was noticeably smaller than 4,000 who heard former President Bill Clinton’s keynote address on Tuesday morning. Those who did manage to find the ballroom were treated to a tour de force from Marian Wright Edelman.
“Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid. Poor children of color are the fodder. As educators you must see it, understand it, sound the alarm and make sure that this threat to American unity and community stops,” said Edelman, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom eleven years ago for her lifelong devotion to seeking civil rights for disadvantaged people.
“We have got to stop the growing criminalization of children at younger and younger ages,” Edelman said. “Schools are a major feeder system into the cradle-to-prison pipeline. We’ve got to challenge low expectations, poor quality education in charters and traditional public schools. Children are entitled to a quality education wherever they are.”
Nationally, Edelman said one child drops out of school every 11 seconds on school days and one child is born into poverty every 32 seconds. A majority of children in all racial and income demographics cannot read or compute proficiently in 4th, 8th and 12th grades. She said that disturbing percentage grows to 80% for Latinos and blacks who have not already dropped out.
“Education is the civil rights issue, the human rights issue of this time,” Edelman said. “We’ve all got to be mindful of the responsibilities that we have to get it right, to do it right because so much is at stake.” Edelman noted that state governments spend on average three times more per prisoner than per public school student. “I can’t think of a dumber investment policy.”
The conference will end Thursday with a late morning rally outside the Georgia State Capitol.